Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Primary Reason - Clarified

I'd like to continue my critique of Isaac Betech's book on the shafan, which is of no contribution to Biblical zoology, and of no interest as such, but is fascinating as a case-study in irrational thought.

In the first post, I discussed the fraudulence of presenting his book as a search for truth rather than as a mission to contrive arguments that will support certain religious beliefs. I also noted his fallacy in presenting the views of Spanish Rishonim, that the shafan is the European rabbit, as evidence for identifying the Biblical shafan as the rabbit (and this comment, I exposed his false claim that he was doing nothing of the sort). In the second post, I noted that Betech has a habit of arguing that something cannot be conclusively disproved, and then smoothly changing that to mean that it is likely, probable, and ultimately that it is true. I also pointed out that his denial that Rav Saadiah Gaon explained the shafan to be the hyrax has no serious basis. Dr. Betech failed to respond to all these criticisms, despite his claim that he would respond to difficulties raised with his book, and that he would concede when shown to be in error.

In this post, I will concentrate on Betech's negation of the primary argument against his claim that the shafan is the rabbit, and the reason why every single academic scholar of Biblical zoology understands the shafan to be the hyrax rather than the rabbit.

The reason is very simple: Rabbits didn't live in Biblical Israel.

Betech mentions, and attempts to deal with, this objection in his book, yet he fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the objection. But first, let me explain why some of his proposed solutions are wrong.

Betech argues that Scripture mentions several animals that were not native to Biblical Israel, such as elephants, giraffes and whales. However, whales were indeed native to the Israeli coast, elephants are mentioned with regard to their ivory that was imported as a royal tribute, and giraffes are (a) not clearly mentioned in the Torah, and (b) were also imported as royal tributes.

Betech also argues that the Torah, in listing non-kosher birds, mentions the peres and azniyah, which live in distant islands, citing Rambam. However, the fact that Rambam describes them as living on distant islands does not mean that they actually live on distant islands! In fact, Biblical zoologists identify them as local species. Furthermore, as we shall see, it is anyway irrelevant, because the evidence that the shafan lived in Biblical Israel has nothing to do with it being mentioned in the laws of kashrus, as we shall explain.

Betech also argues that David HaMelech and Shlomo HaMelech could have known about the rabbit via ruach hakodesh. But first of all, since when does ruach ha-kodesh equate to describing the characteristics of unfamiliar animals in remote places? Rabbi Sedley and myself made many requests of Dr. Betech to provide sources to that effect, but he was unable to do so; he merely gave lists of references which, upon investigation, proved to say nothing of the sort. Second, Rashi is also said by many to have been written with ruach hakodesh, and yet no Rishon, and few Acharonim, believed this to mean that he possessed knowledge about the natural world beyond that which was known in his time and place. Rashi himself certainly didn't think so! Third, if we look at the rest of Nach in general and Barchi Nafshi in particular, nowhere do we see that the Kings and Prophets mentioned fauna or flora that was unknown in Biblical Israel. There is no mention of polar bears, pandas, penguins, pangolins, puffins, or platypuses. In fact, all of the descriptions of the natural world in Tenach perfectly match the perspective of people in Biblical Israel - including various inaccuracies, such as describing dew descending from heavens, the earth standing still, the sky as being a solid firmament, and the kidneys housing the mind.

But in any case, the nature of the argument that the shafan had to live in Biblical Israel has nothing to do with saying that David and Shlomo could not have known about it otherwise, as we shall later explain.

Betech also attempts to solve this problem by claiming that rabbits did indeed live in Biblical Israel. Unfortunately, zoologists and zooarcheologists universally say otherwise. So, Betech argues that perhaps they are all wrong, giving a host of technical explanations. I will leave it to the reader to decide who has more credibility here: zoologists and zooarcheologists, who are specialists, and who have no horse in this race, or Betech, who is a non-specialist, and who has given explicit religious reasons for wanting to believe that rabbits did indeed live in Biblical Israel.

Betech also argues that rabbits are native to Egypt. However, as I pointed out previously, he is wrong. He argues that they are referred to in Egypt as "native rabbits." That is true, but it only means that they they are native in the same sense that I am native to England. Rabbits were introduced to Egypt from Spain at some indeterminate point. If Betech wants to argue that this happened in Biblical times, he has to provide evidence. But in any case, even if rabbits were living in Egypt in Biblical times, it is irrelevant, for reasons that shall now be explained.

As I mentioned earlier, Betech fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the problem. The objection is not that the Author of the Chumash could never have known about the rabbit (which Betech answers by saying that God knows everything). Nor is it that David HaMelech and Shlomo HaMelech could never have heard about it (which could perhaps be answered by saying that they had ruach hakodesh, or that they heard of it from travelers, or had it imported to eat, or that it lived in Egypt). Rather, the reason why the shafan must have lived in Biblical Israel is that David and Shlomo, with a goal not to describe a specific animal, but rather to describe an animal that fulfills a certain role, describe the shafan. And that role is clearly one of an animal that lives in Israel, and is perfectly fulfilled by the hyrax.

Let us examine the two references to the shafan in Nach. First is the verse in Barchi Nafshi:

"The high hills are for the ibex, the rocks are a hiding place for the shafanim." (Psalms 104:18)

This verse has two separate proofs that the shafan is the hyrax and not the rabbit. First is that every single one of the verses in Barchi Nafshi describing the natural world has a single theme; if there are two parts to the verse, they are tightly connected. Since the verse about the shafan begins by describing how the ibex live in the high hills, the animals in the second part must have some sort of connection to the ibex in the high hills. Since hyrax live in the exact same places as ibex, such as Ein Gedi, this would make sense (see the video at the end of this post). But there is no connection between rabbits and ibex.

Second is that it is not David HaMelech's goal to speak about the shafan, per se (as it is the goal in the laws of kashrus). Rather, the goal of Barchi Nafshi is to describe the wonders of all creation. Yet instead of it presenting a list of examples like that which you might see in a contemporary book on the wonders of nature, it limits itself to examples that would have been familiar to a person in Biblical Israel. When David is singing about the trees, he doesn't mention the giant redwoods and sequoias of California; instead, he mentions the much less impressive cedars of Lebanon. When he wants to describe the wonderful fit between terrain and animal, and describes the hills being terrain for ibex, and the rocks being a hiding place for another animal, obviously he is taking about something that hides under the rocks right here, amongst the ibex that he just mentioned. It is absurd to posit that he would instead pick an example from an animal that lives in a remote region.

Let us now turn to the second reference to the shafan, in Mishlei:

"There are four in the land that are small, but are exceedingly wise… The shefanim are not a strong people, but they place their home in the rock." (Proverbs 30:24, 26)

King Shlomo speaks about animals that are "small, yet ingenious." If I was speaking on that topic, I'd mention the bombardier beetle, the basilisk, the pistol shrimp, or some similar extraordinary marvel. Shlomo, on the other hand, speaks about the ant, the locust, and the lizard - presumably, because he and his readers knew about such animals, whereas they did not know about bombardier beetles, basilisks and pistol shrimps. He also wants to refer to an animal that is weak, but manages to evade predators by hiding amongst rocks. Obviously, then, he would refer to the animal that lives right in his area and does exactly that! Doesn't that make infinitely more sense than positing that Shlomo ignores the animal that lives in his area and does exactly that, and instead mentions a much less familiar animal that lives far away? Not to mention the fact that rabbits vastly prefer to hide in burrows rather than rocks (unless he's talking about the genus of rock-rabbits that he mentions in his book, but disingenuously fails to mention that they only live in southern Africa)?

I raised these points here before Betech's book went to press, but he ignored them. And I presume that the rabbis who wrote endorsements for his book are entirely unaware of these problems. But these are the reasons why every academic scholar of Biblical zoology rejects as absurd the notion that the shafan is the rabbit. And likewise, any rational person that is aware of these points.


  1. You consistently seem to mistaken logical argument for empirical evidence.

    To some degree this is a disagreement over a previous statement you made. You said essentially that an improbabity is less viable than a probability. In terms of 'could it have happened' (i.e. viability) the both are on equal footing. The latter is just more likely to be correct and scientists will therefore focus on that and ignore the improbable case. But the improbable is only empirically disproven when tests are done to determine this to be the case. Logical argument does not suffice.

    Admittedly in this case it is impossable to disprove or prove a side because we would have to ask the authors themselves what they meant. Logically, though, we can make an assumption that they were talking about what was indigenus to Israel.

    I side with you over your detractors because your arguments are the most logical, but the categoric disproof has not been shown.

    (One case where the improbable was determined to be correct include DNA vs. proteins in the formation of biological creature.)

  2. Anyone would have to agree based solely on the two verses in Nach and the findings of Biblical zoologists that the hyrax is by far the better candidate for the "shafan" than the rabbit. So it seems to me that what's really going on here is not a factual disagreement, but rather an *epistemological* disagreement. For you, common sense, logic and empirical observation are the tools for obtaining knowledge. For Isaac Betech and others, they would agree with that, but they’d say that a "higher", more authoritative form of knowledge is that which is obtained via Divine inspiration. And he ascribes such inspiration to a specific set of Torah authorities. So if there is any conflict between empirically-derived knowledge and divinely-inspired knowledge, the latter *has to* win out.

    Therefore an *honest* response by Betech would acknowledge that you're correct on empirical terms but then explain that he is forced to conclude otherwise based on the divinely-inspired statements of X, Y and Z Torah authorities.

    I presume that the rabbis who wrote endorsements for his book

    Funny enough I initially misread this as "the rabbits who wrote endorsements for his book"! (Why am I surprised that the hyraxes would decline to endorse it? :-)


  3. OJ - As I've said previously, that is precisely the problem - that Betech professes to only respect categorical proof/disproof, and reason plays no role. I can't categorically disprove the existence of a giant pink invisible fairy in Manhattan, either.

    Atheodox Jew - The problem is that which divinely-inspired statements is he following? It would have to be those of the Rishonim in Spain. But why are they more divinely inspired than Rav Saadiah Gaon? Not to mention all the evidence against their being divinely inspired.

    Actually, the real thing driving Betech is that he wants there to be exactly four animals with one kosher sign. Identifying the shafan as the rabbit enables him to accomplish that.

  4. Dear Rabbi Slifkin,

    Your point is well-taken about being unable to logically disprove all sorts of tendentious, unlikely things. However, you need to change your example of being unable to disprove the "existence of a giant pink invisible fairy in Manhattan."

    If it is invisible (i.e. not reflecting light at any visible wavelength), then it cannot be pink (i.e. reflecting light at a visible wavelength that we perceive as "pink.")


    Michael Merdinger

  5. I'm not entirely sure I understand why this "debate" is occurring in the first place. While I side with the rational position here, with all due respect, R' Slifkin, what difference does it really make whether the shafan is a rabbit or hyrax? Why is this debate so important that deep matters of faith and emuna seem to hang in the balance? All the Torah was doing (at a level of peshat) is stating an example of an animal that does not have split hooves and chew its cud? Unless I'm mistaken, neither animal does?

  6. Sorry, my mistake in my previous comment - Stefan in the Torah chews its cud but doesn't have split hooves.

  7. Rav Natan,

    You are going to loose this debate - if you trying debating with morons, they drag you down to their level and then beat you as they have the home-team advantage.

    You are dealing with Rational thinking, based on logic and scientific method.
    Rabbi Betech is working with a dogmatic belief-system which states that "Everything that Every Rishon ever said must be true - no matter how illogical". Although he claims to be using science to prove his point, he is incapable of applying a scientific approach as by definition, starting with a dogmatic belief makes it impossible to objectively look at the facts.

  8. Actually, the real thing driving Betech is that he wants there to be exactly four animals with one kosher sign.

    For sure. My guess is it comes down to an "Aish Discovery" orientation to Judaism, where:

    1) the Torah is assumed to possess total/perfect knowledge, and
    2) this can be demonstrated by "proofs" A, B and C.

    That being the case, it must be that those Torah authorities who support this orientation (or at the very least support the specific "proofs") hold the *real* mesorah. Their Divine inspiration is therefore "diviner" than the rest.

    Once we know who's in tune with bona fide "perfect knowledge", we then get back to what I said about that knowledge trumping empirical knowledge when the two come into conflict.

    So you're right - it's an epistemological disagreement which is coming from a very specific package of assumptions and goals.

  9. The Bald Guy,

    As R' Natan said, this is more of a lesson is rationalism. Arguably, it may not be fundamentally important whether we are talking about a rabbit or a hyrax. The point is that Betech's argument is an example of attempting to uphold the infallibility of Chazal in any and all circumstances. What they fail to realize is that attempting to prove them right in every circumstance does the opposite of their intended goal - it actually makes chazal look foolish because now, they can no longer be forgiven for their completely understandable ignorance of modern scientific discovery while still masters of their expertise - Torah and halacha. Instead, we try to make medieval understanding of biology, astronomy,etc. correct, which is of course one doomed for failure and make chazal a laughing-stock to any rational thinking person.

  10. Rabbi Slifkin's fairy is similar to the Invisible Pink Unicorn They (there are many of them) are able to be pink and invisible because they are gods. Does this fairy mean that Rabbi Slifkin believes in other gods besides Hashem? I hope not, because I put a check in the Emes box and that would surely be kefira.

  11. @The Bald Guy:

    It may fall largely on deaf ears, but I think this debate has some importance. The specifics are (mostly) irrelevant, but the point is not.

    That is, as others have pointed out, the debate is one of reason over blind faith to a random set of dogma. If Judaism is allowed to descend to this kind of "intellectualism", the Torah becomes essentially meaningless. It loses all context and one can interpret Tanach, as well as the words of any scholar to mean whatever is convenient. There are groups that do this today, and it is a tragedy. It destroys the Mesorah that so many have worked to maintain.

  12. Attribution of ruach ha-kodesh to a scholar or commentator can be a really slippery slope, especially if we use this attribution to favour his interpretation over another's. IMO.

  13. Beautiful piece of art and science

  14. B"H

    You wrote:
    Dr. Betech failed to respond to all these criticisms, despite his claim that he would respond to difficulties raised with his book, and that he would concede when shown to be in error.

    You forgot to write the reason I suddenly stopped commenting here, i.e. your sarcasm and the sarcasm you allowed to other bloggers.

    BTW you an Y Aharon did not answer to my last published comments regarding this lack of Derech Eretz.

  15. How convenient for you.

    Where was the sarcasm in the first post?

    You do realize, of course, that everyone will conclude that you simply don't have answers, but that, as always, you refuse to concede error.

  16. B"H
    In the first post I answered until you began with the sarcasm in the second.
    You can check date and time.

    I am aware that someone that have not read my book can beleive your distorsion of my arguments, nevertheless if they are serious they can read the book and present questions and refutations by email or in my blogspot

    If you are serious and erase your sarcasm in your second post and erase the sarcasm you allowed to your bloggers, we can also have here some intelectual interchange.


  17. No, I think that sarcasm is better than you deserve. If you don't want to offer a response to my refutation of your arguments, that's fine with me.

  18. Why doesn't Betech just make it easy on himself and fall back on the old reliable "nishteneh hateva" line? Shfanim were originally hyraxes until they transformed into European rabbits. Or perhaps that would sound too much like an endorsement of evolution?

  19. Arstroll Tanach does translate shaphan as hyrax and arnevet as hare. Shaphan did have more than one usage in ancient days though amongst the Canaanites. Apparently it was used to describe rabbits as well despite their ears being unhyrax like.
    "The original European wild rabbits evolved about 4,000 years ago in the red shaded area of the world known as Iberia. In fact the visiting Phoenician merchants referred to part of Iberia as \'I-shephan-im\' which means land of the rabbits. This was translated as \'Hispania\' or as we know it - Spain. The scientific name for rabbits is \'Oryctolagus cuniculus\' which sounds much more complicated than it actually is because it means \'a hare-like digger of underground passages\'."

  20. "Natan Slifkin said...

    No, I think that sarcasm is better than you deserve."

    And what does he deserve rabbi? What is your psak halacha? I'm not being facetious. I'm being serious. It seems like you are treating those who are displeasing you as hefker to do with as you please with no reference to halacha.

  21. Dr. Betech is so self righteous it is beginning to become offensive. Did he forget the way he treated Rabbi Slifkin. Instead of ruining someone by manipulating Gedolim, Rabbi Slifkin systematically decimates him in the intellectual realm.

    I think he would do much better for himself by admitting defeat, instead he has decided to play the victim.

  22. I will say that the Rishonim who said rabbit=shafan were on the right track in one way.

    It's one thing to think that the way a bombardier beetle generates and uses hydrogen peroxide is a wonder of creation. It is, but it's not everybody's cup of tea.

    But David Hamelekh mostly wasn't bringing the rare, strange, exotic animals in Barchi Nafshi. As Rabbi Slifkin said, the goal of Barchi Nafshi is to describe the wonders of all creation.

    So maybe what Barchi Nafshi is doing is showing that even the commonplace animals of the landscape are amazing and wonderful works of the Creator.

    And maybe the impulse to identify the shafan with an animal they were locally familiar with was in keeping with the feeling the text is meant to engender, even though it's not in keeping with the zoology of Eretz Yisrael. I don't think that would satisfy Dr. Betech, though.

  23. Why are you so angry about a hyrax and rabbit? They seem like nice furry animals.

    1. Mordechai GordonJune 27, 2013 at 8:08 AM

      Aaaah. I yearn for the days when men were real men and small furry creatures from the Middle East were real small furry creatures from the Middle East.

  24. Re: Hyrax picture above.

    If Kollel students would produce and market "shafan teddy bears from the Holy Land," I think they would make ample money to support their kollel study.

    Of course they would look like the cute hyraxes in the pic above.

  25. IB:
    You forgot to write the reason I suddenly stopped commenting here, i.e. your sarcasm and the sarcasm you allowed to other bloggers.

    Dr. Betech, you have very little leg to stand on here. You accused R. Slifkin on your blog of being an apostate, sinner and academic fraud. That post is still there, next to the top.

    And wasting peoples time with absurd questions and arguments is equally annoying to wit:

    Before I further elaborate on your comment, please clarify are you saying that hyrax has no tail and the rabbit has?
    If so, rabbit’s tail is small, medium or large?

    Don't tell me those were serious questions.

  26. Yoel B said...

    "But David Hamelekh mostly wasn't bringing the rare, strange, exotic animals in Barchi Nafshi. As Rabbi Slifkin said, the goal of Barchi Nafshi is to describe the wonders of all creation.

    So maybe what Barchi Nafshi is doing is showing that even the commonplace animals of the landscape are amazing and wonderful works of the Creator."

    Thank you, Yoel B. What a great vort.

  27. Natan,
    1. Since the Torah was given in the Sinai desert to a people who were unfamiliar with the animals of Eretz Yisrael, why could it not mention animals that are not indigenous. They receivers of the Torah would presumably be as unfamiliar with other species that do not live in the desert!
    2. Regarding a giraffe, I remember learning that that is how Rav Saadia translates Zemer. If that is correct, then we cannot rely on him for some things and not others
    3. I am not familiar with all of your work, but you seem to chip away at the idea of Masorah in totality. So, for instance, European rabbis could NOT have an accurate Masorah about things which are not indigenous to their lands. To my ears this claim has much more far-reaching implications since so much of Torah SheBealPeh is given to us through Mesorah only. You seem to hold that an intellectual tradition (that regards physical reality) is untenable unless it can be observed empirically by the reciver. Please clarify if this is your position.
    4. I think the idea of reasonableness is being used polemically. It is more like Descartes' "radical doubt" to say that we were created 5 minutes ago. It would be contradicted by our inherit sense of reality and by the assumptions that we make when we live our lives. To say that that is unreasonable in the same way that the identity of a creature in a thousand-year-old text is unreasonable is polemical. Now, we have to weigh the Masorah of the European Rishonim (maybe the Middle-Eastern ones also, not sure) versus the findings of zoologists. I think there is room for "reasonable doubt" here and do not find the other position to be blatantly unreasonable.

  28. 1. Addressed in this post. (by the way, all the animals in the Torah also live in the Sinai desert.)
    2. I don't understand your point. (and we rely on everyone for some things and not other things)
    3. It's not impossible, just very difficult and unlikely to exist unless there is pressing need for it (which there isn't in this case).
    4. see 3.

  29. "In fact, all of the descriptions of the natural world in Tenach perfectly match the perspective of people in Biblical Israel - including various inaccuracies, such as describing dew descending from heavens, the earth standing still, the sky as being a solid firmament, and the kidneys housing the mind."

    Has Rabbi Slifkin explained elsewhere how he believes as an Orthodox Jew that the Bible comes from an inerrant, perfect being while also acknowledging that the Bible contains errors such as those mentioned above?

  30. Obviously I wouldn't post such a thing unless I had explained it elsewhere! See my book The Challenge Of Creation.

  31. They were aware of food that they lacked in the Sinai desert including fish. They still had words for them thanks to their more immediate national frame of reference Egypt. As for giraffes "Giraffes and many other kinds of exotic animals were brought to Egypt through Nubia. They were kept by the pharaoh to show that he had conquered foreign lands"
    THe Israelites were certainly acquainted with the Nubians, the Cushites. A people from a distant land not bordering Israel and still they had a name for them.

  32. All true, but I'm not sure what point you are trying to make.

  33. For the Israelites being told about the rabbit when receiving the Torah that would be while they are the ones who did not grow up in the desert. They were familiar with Egypt.

  34. YA, this is why I banned you from commenting for a while. Your comments are extremely unclear and indicate that you simply don't read the posts. As I wrote in the post, the primary reason for the shafan not being the rabbit has nothing to do with the reference to the shafan in the laws of kashrus.

    (And your comment is silly for other reasons. Everyone knows about fish. Giraffes are not clearly mentioned in the Torah, but even if they are, they were certainly known in Egypt. Rabbits, on the other hand, were probably not known in Egypt at that time, in which case there would not have been a word for them.)

  35. May I humbly suggest that you ban the word "ban" when talking about commenters? Say something instead like "That's why I didn't post your comments" or "That's why I didn't allow your comments to appear."

    The statement "That's why you were banned" sounds extremist and medieval.

    (No need to post this comment. It's just a suggestion to you personally which you can take or leave.)


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